- Mark Twain: American Humorist by Tracy Wuster
Within the Mark Twain industrial complex, there exists a thriving cottage industry devoted less to the analysis of Samuel L. Clemens's literary works than to the study of what was arguably his most enduring and significant creation, the public persona known as Mark Twain. Lou Budd's Our Mark Twain: The Making of His Public Personality (1983) is a classic of the genre, as are Jeffrey Steinbrink's Getting to Be Mark Twain (1991) and Andrew Hoffman's Inventing Mark Twain: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1997). A more recent manifestation of the theme is Twain's Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture (2012), Judith Lee's illuminating study of the most famous literary trademark ever to adorn the covers of an American book. Joining this robust conversation is Tracy Wuster, whose excellent new tome is an attempt "to understand what it meant for Mark Twain to be a humorist in his own time, and to explore what 'humor' signified and encompassed for different audiences of the Gilded Age" (5). [End Page 122] As this introductory declaration suggests, Wuster is less interested in the meaning of Mark Twain's literary texts than in the development of his reputation from roughly 1865 to 1882, as he transformed himself from an edgy California humorist into a regular contributor to the eminently respectable Atlantic Monthly.
A large part of this story of professional transformation entails Clemens's deliberate acts of self-fashioning, as he honed his lyceum performance style and his literary voice to meet the demands of an expanding and increasingly East–Coast audience. Another large part of the story has to do with the critical debates that followed Mark Twain everywhere he went and that made him a focal point of the period's culture wars. Wuster is at his best in recreating the "rough critical terrain in which critics varied widely over whether Mark Twain [possessed] literary merit or whether he was merely a passing whim of a debased public" (4). By reproducing rich samples of contemporary criticism, Wuster reminds us that the very name Mark Twain was a flashpoint for disagreements about the significance of American humor as a cultural phenomenon.
Sam Clemens's road from sagebrush bohemian to respectable author entailed four major stops, as Wuster narrates the journey. The first stage "had been characterized by his appearance as a newspaper reporter, magazinist, and lecturer in California—'the Wild Humorist of the Western Slope,' which culminated in the success of his jumping frog" (356). A second phase in the development of the persona "was marked by his ascension to national and international fame as an 'American Humorist' and his transition from peripheral figure to central exponent of the unique and peculiar school of a distinctly national humor—'the best of our second-rate humorists'" (356). At this point in his career, roughly coincident with the publication of The Innocents Abroad (1869), critics routinely compared Mark Twain with Artemus Ward, Petroleum V. Nasby, and other irreverent literary comedians of the period, but a large rung was reserved at the top of the humor hierarchy for those considered the true purveyors of American wit: Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell in particular. Mark Twain ascended to that final rung during the third phase of his development, as he "moved into new venues in which he might be considered, in the words of his most important promoter [William Dean Howells]—'quite worthy of the company of the best'" (356). During the fourth and final stage, which Wuster links to publication of A Tramp Abroad (1880) and [End Page 123] The Prince and the Pauper (1882), "Mark Twain's work was discussed largely in relation to his earlier work, rather than in relation to other humorists" (356). Fittingly, Howells at this point drops the impulse to compare his friend with even "the best," insisting in 1882 that Mark Twain has become "the most popular humorist who ever lived" (356).
Wuster narrates this process of ascension to cultural respectability with admirable thoroughness...